Will the election of Donald Trump bring a rollback of MPAs?

MPA News

MPA News does not normally report on elections of national leaders. However, the early-November election of Donald J. Trump to serve as the next President of the US could be relevant to the MPA field. In particular there is the possibility it could bring a rollback of some significant MPAs.

Trump has stated his intent to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action” issued by current US President Barack Obama. Depending on how Trump and his administration choose to define “unconstitutional” (the term is often used loosely in US politics), those executive actions could include MPA designations. Namely these would be MPAs that Obama enacted or expanded without congressional approval, using the executive authority accorded to him as President under the US Antiquities Act.

Three marine national monuments fit that criterion:

At this time such a rollback is purely speculative. But proponents of a rollback may already be at work. On 17 November, US Congresswoman Aumua Amata Radewagen from American Samoa met with incoming Vice President Mike Pence and reportedly asked that the Trump Administration cancel the executive orders that created and expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. All commercial extractive activity is currently banned in the MPA. (The Congresswoman’s press release on the meeting does not mention the monument request.) Incidentally the MPA was designated originally by former President George W. Bush by executive order in 2009, prior to being expanded by Obama five years later.

This may not be the only impact of the Trump Administration on MPAs. Bills were introduced to Congress earlier this year to block a plan by the National Park Service to designate a 42.5-km2 no-take area within 583-km2 Biscayne National Park, off the coast of Florida. The no-take area was planned over the course of several years to protect the park’s most sensitive coral habitat. The Obama Administration has not taken a position on the bills. Trump, who has voiced support for recreational fishing and hunting and whose sons are avid anglers and hunters, might support them.

More broadly, Trump’s stance that man-made climate change is a hoax suggests that the US — the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases — may back away from global emissions targets, potentially worsening the impacts that climate change is already having on the ocean.

Impossible to know

That being said, it remains impossible to know for sure what impacts Trump’s election — and his eventual Cabinet appointments — will have on MPAs in US waters or elsewhere. He has no prior political record on which to base expectations, and his only business connections to the ocean have been the several coastal resorts and golf courses that his company owns.

Asked by Scientific American magazine what his presidency would do to improve ocean health and sustainable fisheries, Trump’s campaign responded simply that he would “work with Congress to establish priorities for our government and how we will allocate our limited fiscal resources.“ As noncommittal as that answer is, it is the best one available from his campaign. Aside from various general statements the campaign made on the need to balance conserving resources with a thriving economy, it is the only time the Trump campaign provided a position on ocean health as a whole.


All speculation, of course - but given both the rhetoric and the nature of this next Administration's following among possible Cabinet choices as well as the public, I am much more pessimistic. The oceans in general and MPAs in particular are perhaps more at risk than any part of America, precisely because only the government - not land owners, not communities - can prevent its overuse and destruction. Trumps' ideology is inherently antithetical to the idea of managing commons resources, and his followers have not demonstrated much patience for community or stewardship. Add to this the very clear signal emerging from his nebulous cloud of campaign promises that regulations which get in the way of business profitability will be rolled back, and you have a pretty clear recipe for wholesale exploitation and hobbled management / science. We'll be left with greater economic disparity than ever before, and environmental scars that may prove impossible to heal. 

Sorry to be so negative and to go even further with the political discourse than your balanced and thoughtful piece - but it is hard to be an optimist these days. What is it that Peter Jones said in another Open Channels comment thread: 'a pessimist is an optimist with a reality check'?!

Hi everyone. I just had a discussion about this with a newspaper journalist. The journalist argued that (a) Presidents don't have power under the Antiquities Act to overturn previously designated monuments (the three MPAs in question are considered monuments in the Act's language), and (b) the three MPAs were not particularly controversial so no one would want to overturn them anyway. I'll address these points.

First, presidential power to overturn previously designated monuments has never been litigated. It is true that the Antiquities Act does not explicitly give Presidents the power to overturn monuments. However, it does not explicitly forbid them from doing so, either. The operative text of the Act is:

"That the President of the United States is hereby authorized, in his discretion, to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments, and may reserve as a part thereof parcels of land, the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected...."

Because a President's power to abolish an existing monument remains an open legal question, President Trump is free to attempt to do so. In that case he would almost surely be sued by conservation groups, and a court would then be asked to establish whether or not the President holds such power.

Alternatively, President Trump could try modifying the monuments by recalculating "the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected" for each of the sites. In other words, he would modify the sites by shrinking them. Although various Presidents have effectively used this clause in the Antiquities Act to expand existing monuments - including Papahānaumokuākea and the Pacific Remote Islands - no President to my knowledge has used the clause to shrink them. But a legal case could be made that such shrinkage, conceivably to some very small fraction of an MPA's original size, is technically allowed. Again, an attempt by Trump to use the Act this way would likely be challenged, and a court would need to establish whether the President holds such power.

Or President Trump could simply ask Congress - which, like the Presidency, will be in Republican hands - to modify or abolish the monuments. A 2016 analysis of the Antiquities Act by the Congressional Research Service points out that Congress has already established its authority to take either action, as well as to allow various resource uses in monuments beyond those that were previously allowed by a President. (The minority Democratic Party could still block such action in the Senate via a filibuster. It seems likely that action to modify or abolish Papahānaumokuākea would be filibustered by Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, who played a key role in shepherding the site's expansion by President Obama earlier this year. But I'm less sure of Democratic commitment to the other MPAs.)

Now to the newspaper journalist's second point: For President Trump or Congress to take these actions, the MPAs would need to be controversial enough to make such actions worthwhile. An argument can be made that they are. The expansion of Papahānaumokuākea was contested by tuna longliners, Hawaii restaurateurs, certain political officials in Hawaii, and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument has been criticized by fishing groups in New England. And as mentioned in the MPA News article above, a US Representative from American Samoa reportedly already approached Vice President-Elect Mike Pence about reopening the area of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to commercial fishing.

As I wrote earlier, it is impossible at this point to know what President Trump's position on the MPAs will be. Perhaps he will personally favor their continuation - we have no idea. But I stand by what I wrote on how a rollback of these three MPAs is a legitimate possibility. We'll see what the future holds.

- John Davis, Editor, MPA News

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